Google Sites: A Significant Information Mutation

February 28, 2008

Last year about this time (February 2007), I wrote a 20-page white paper about Google’s publishing inventions for a consulting firm providing advisory services to the “traditional” publishing industry. You can get read my full analysis of Google’s publishing inventions in my Google Version 2.0 study.

I’m inclined — perhaps incorrectly — to think of traditional publishing as a business sector that emphasizes school ties, connections, and a business model that would be recognizable to Gutenberg.

After writing the white paper, part of the deal was that I would give a short talk at an invitation-only, super-exclusive publishing industry enclave at an exotic resort. Before I gave my talk, the sleek, smooth-talking facilitators guided about two dozen publishing moguls through an agenda shot through with management buzz words I hadn’t heard since my days at Booz, Allen & Hamilton. I thought, “People still pay money to hear this baloney, I guess.”

My Remarks: The Three-Minute Version

In my brief talk, I reviewed five points about Google and publishing; to wit:

  • Technology. Google has actively invested in systems, methods, and companies that allow a Google user to create, edit, format, share, and distribute content for more than eight years. Based on my analyses of Google’s patent applications and engineering documents, Google’s content creation components are one of a half dozen sub systems designed to allow the Google application platform to function as an integrated content system. Think of Google as building a system that performs search and online ads plus the “value adding” functions of a traditional publisher. JotSpot, acquired in 2006.
  • “Fabric” tactics. Instead of creating a single publication to compete, Google is building out a fabric of functions. In traditional publishing, competition was gentlemanly and involved identifying a niche, running some tests, and launching a new magazine, publishing a book, or creating an information service. The approach has been unchanged since broadsheets competed for readers for hundreds of years. Publishers were polite, observed certain rules of engagement, and attacked aggressively while following a “code of conduct”. The approach is similar to that used by Alexander the Great or Caesar. The competitive battles are one-to-one fights between armies using well-known, obvious tactics. Google operates in a different way, poking and probing niches. Instead of bull dozing forward, Google lets beta tests pull the company where there’s an opportunity.
  • Real real time data and real time adaptation. Traditional publishers are not real-time operations. Even the wonderful Wall Street Journal has characteristics of a peer-reviewed journal. Stories, particularly the feature-like analyses, can be in process for as much as six months. A math journal review process can take a year or more. Daily newspapers chatter about real-time, but the publications close at a specific time, and if something important happens after that time, editors cover the news in another edition, maybe a day or more later. Google, on the other hand, pays attention to traffic and user behavior, and it can adjust quickly. To see this in action, navigate to Google News and hit the refresh button every few minutes. You may see the changes take place as the Google system adapts to users, information, and system functions.
  • Polymorphism. A traditional publisher often keeps a low profile; for example, like a Thomson, Reed Elsevier, or the New York Times Co. The idea is that a particular “property” will manifest the image of the organization. Thomson is better known by “information products” such as West Publishing. The New York Times has many interests, but unless there’s some upheaval like the executive ouster at, most people perceive this outfit as a “gray lady”, the New York Times newspaper. Google, on the other hand, is perceived in terms of search and advertising. With Type A, Wall Street wizards counting ad revenues, there’s no reason to worry about any Google activity that doesn’t generate billions of dollars every 90 days. A traditional publisher trying to figure out Google has to cut through a lot of static to get to the Google base station. When a person does get closer to Google’s non-search and ad interests, the flashy Google Maps, Google Books, or Google Docs seem suggestive to me. Once again, perception can be off kilter. Information, Napoleon is alleged to have said, “is nine-tenths of any battle.” I think publishers have pegged Google incorrectly. As I said in my February 2007 discussion, “Google poses a different problem… asymmetric threats in multiple sectors simultaneously.”
  • Cost advantages. Traditional publishers face cost challenges. Whether the challenge is rebellious writers, inflexible union contracts, or raw material scarcity — publishers struggle to generate a profit. Organic growth is an ever tougher problem even for blue-chips like Dow Jones & Co. Few outside of the closed book publishing insiders know that a block buster keeps some publishing companies in business. A company with a hot college textbook can plunge into red ink with the loss of a text book adoption in college psychology or economics courses. A newspaper can take a painful financial karate chop when one local auto dealer cancels her full page, full color ads in next Sunday’s newspaper. The Google infrastructure operates on a different costbasis, and Google has different business model options to exercise.

Not surprisingly, my remarks met with a less-then-enthusiastic reception. There was push back that I heard as ineffectual. This particular group of publishing giants argued without knowing much about Google. The themes of Google’s naiveté, its failure to respect copyright, its track record of failure outside of search, the dependence on online advertising, and the other arguments were those I had heard before. Instead of arguing, I let these superstars convince themselves that Google was an anomaly. I talked with a couple of people and left. I was surprised when I was paid by the meeting organizer I concluded that I would be stiffed since I upset the blue-bloods, and these folks did not want their world view challenged by someone who lived in Kentucky where literacy ranked in the lower quartile in the United States.

Google Sites — Should Publishers Care?

Here’s a screen shot from JotSpot before Google acquired it. Take a look, and scan my observations about Joe Kraus’s company.

Jotspot input screen 2006

Copyright Google 2006

JotSpot is a content creation tool, a content management system, and a dissemination system that supports collaboration. It is a next-generation, social publishing system that allows a user to select a template, enter content directly or via a script, and take content far beyond the confines of ink on paper. JotSpot is a component that complements other publishing-related functions in the Google system; for example, the little-known invention at Google that assembles custom content pages with ads automatically in response to Google actions. See, for example, patent application US20050096979. Screen shots for the Google Sites’ version of JotSpot are here, but you may need to scroll down to see the thumbnails. I fancy the one that looks like a magazine.

Any content entered in this system is structured; that is, tagged. The information is, therefore, indexable and contains metatags about the meaning and context of the information. As a result, the content can be sliced and diced, what traditional publishers call “repurposed”. The difference is that traditional publishers store content in XML data structured and rely mostly on human editors to “add value” with some automatic processes. At Google, software systems and methods perform most of the repurposing, and humans can be involved if deemed necessary. The processed content can be manipulated by Google’s library of processes, procedures, and functions, guided by Google’s smart software. (I’m working on a report about Google’s use of computational intelligence at this time (February 2008).

The Google Sites’s service gives Google a wiki capability. However, that’s just one use of the system. JotSpot embedded in Google Apps allows organizations to take a baby step away from the expensive, overly complex, and poorly engineered content management systems that plague users. In addition, the JotSpot function makes it easy for Google to approach a well-known expert, ask her to input information on a specialty, and make that knowledge available as part of a beta service such as Google Health.

I know it’s difficult to conceptualize Google as a digital version of Henry Ford’s River Rouge facility. Raw iron ore goes in one end, and a Ford automobile comes out the other end, gets put on a Ford truck, and is delivered to a Ford dealership. This type of integration is out of favor in our era of outsourcing. Google is breaking with the received wisdom and using its application platform to marry its systems and methods with certain integrated manufacturing business practices. Google has taken the extreme integration of Henry Ford’s vision and implemented it in digital form. This marriage of an old idea with Google’s platform is remarkable for its scope, efficiency, and scalability. Publishers don’t “think” like Google. It’s hard, then, for publishers to get their arms around Google.

What makes Google interesting to me is its application platform. Publishing is just one of the business sectors that the company can probe. Keep in mind that these initiatives are tests, conducted in plain sight, and available for anyone to analyze.

Navigate to or Scan the postings about. You will find brilliant commentaries, insightful analyses, and great writing about Google Sites and its features.

What’s missing is the connection between the functionality of Google Sites and these particular functions and the broader implications for content acquisition, processing, distribution, repackaging, and vending. The particular use of JotSpot is indeed interesting, but the more important way to think about Google Sites is in a broader context.

Traditional publishers will point out that Google Sites is basic, lacks features, and can’t deliver the “value adds” that define the high-value products produced by the Financial Times, McGraw-Hill, Elsevier Science, Wolters-Kluwer, and others in “real” publishing, not the fuzzy world of Google “publishing”.

I’m thinking that Google may have a significant impact on publishing with comparatively little investment, effort, saber rattling, or ramp up. Cost, distribution, real-time response, personalization, search, online ads, and interesting systems and methods could trigger an earthquake in the insular world of print-on-paper publishing. What do you think?

Stephen Arnold, February 28, 2008


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